In one of history’s greatest moments of desperate self-justification, General William Tecumseh Sherman famously said, “War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” If only the same were true of war movies.
Fury is spectacularly inhumane, but also endless. Aspiring to a hyper-violent verisimilitude that feels crass and exploitative when embedded in such a hackneyed film, this story of a star-studded American tank unit trying to survive the final months of World War II attempts to illustrate the chaos of combat without ever deviating from a very familiar script.
It’s April, 1945, and everything is terrible. The Allied victory seems assured, but the Germans refuse to go quietly into that good night. By this point in the war, every life is lost in vain. Boasting a fleet of immensely powerful tanks, each of which is deadly enough to cut an American squadron to ribbons, Hitler’s army is putting up a last ditch fight for the motherland. But the Nazi forces are no match for Fury, an exhausted heap of a Sherman tank that’s survived countless battles across two continents and three years.
Led by Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt, who has Lt. Aldo Raine’s voice but regrettably lacks his way with words), Fury is piloted by a rough and ragtag crew of men who seem more committed to maintaining an impenetrable veil of masculinity than they do winning the war. There’s Boyd “Bible” Swan (a mustached Shia LaBeouf doing his best impression of Quint from Jaws), who mumbles about God and seems to sweat pure motor oil; Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña), a racial heritage in search of a character; Gracy “Coon-Ass” Travis (the meaty Jon Bernthal), a massive stack of southern muscle; and finally, the fresh corpse of the tank’s gunner, whose former position was apparently the WWII equivalent of drumming for Spinal Tap.
Enter Norman “Norman” Ellison (Logan Lerman, desperately trying to breach the suffocating naïveté that has defined his screen roles). An army typist suddenly assigned without explanation (it’s either a clerical error or the American forces are fresh out of qualified bodies), Norman is a nervous wreck whose innocence makes him as much of a threat to Fury’s crew as he is to the Germans. Barely 18, and without a drop of blood on his hands, this stammering kid is about to dropped on the biggest stage of the European theater and forced to shoot his way out. In the two or three days over which the movie unfolds, Norman’s moral compass is absolutely flattened underneath the treads of his new tank, his fellow soldiers hazing the goodness out of him until the doe-eyed boy from Pittsburgh has become a genuine killing machine. What a crazy weekend!
Fury is a veritable cornucopia of abhorrent behavior, but as gory as it is, director David Ayer’s (End of Watch, Sabotage) grim emphasis is less focused on the violence itself than the people who perpetrate it. The writer-director has made a career of exploring the grey areas between power and justice, his films invariably set in an immoral world that’s determined to corrupt the good men who have the misfortune of blundering into it. Since writing 2001’s Training Day, Ayer has repurposed his new cop/bad cop shtick in a number of different ways, effectively becoming a one-man cottage industry of movies whose posters feature one or more officers of the law standing in front of a saturated urban landscape and staring into the macho abyss of their lives.
A typical Ayer hero is a man confronted with the gaping darkness of their id, engaged in an epic struggle for their soul that hopes to entertain viewers while mocking their attempts at judgment. His profoundly unsubtle films scream that being a narcotics agent/L.A.P.D. officer/tank gunner is just too damn intense for any of us popcorn-munching maggots to understand, so we’d best just awe at the testosterone on display and take comfort in the moral clarity of our lives. It’s like Wardaddy says when Norman questions his feelings about the Germans: “We’re not here for right and wrong, we’re here to kill them.”
Unfortunately, Fury is the latest illustration that Ayer is better at sketching a barbaric nightmare than he is in exploring it. His Germany is a colorless wasteland of rolling fog and rotting bodies. The film’s tendency to push its most horrifying details (an amputated human face, an imminent rape) to the periphery of the frame creates a world that is palpably suffused with savagery. Fury doesn’t just want to be hellish—it wants to be more hellish than anything else you’ve seen. Ayer aspires to depict the utter comprehensiveness of war, of how the men who still inhabit their bodies are rotting from the inside out, and how, for these men, Fury is all they have left.
But Fury struggles with the external and internal alike. Its frequent action scenes are unexceptionally staged, unsure if they want to be cool or catastrophic, and incapable of playing those two goals against one another. The tank is reduced to a prop, too often deprived of the claustrophobic sense of place that made Lebanon (or even the Ayer-scripted U-571) such a comparatively harrowing experience. Ayer also lets the air out whenever he cuts to the German POV, the half-assed attempts to dimensionalize the fighting invariably conflict with the film’s experiential focus, and work to undercut a crucial moment during the last reel.
Unsurprisingly, Fury’s most interesting part—which best epitomizes the severe limitations of its dramatic grace—takes place outside of the tank, as Wardaddy and Norman drop in on a terrified pair of attractive German cousins. Brimming with the potential for sexual violence, the sequence is almost a film unto itself, its moral relativity a memorable depiction of how war is only allowed to exist because our command of right and wrong isn’t as absolute as we’d hope. But the self-contained vignette can’t sustain its inquiry, imploding, as the film itself always does, in a bombastic hodgepodge of cheap sentiment and overbearing music (Steven Price’s score is a disaster, but its application is even worse).
If Fury is a convincing illustration that war isn’t like it is in the movies, it’s only because the film so aggressively reminds us how artificial movies about war can be.
David Ehrlich is the Editor-at-Large of Little White Lies and a profoundly important freelance film writer. His interests include movies about movies, the New York Rangers, and recycling the same terrible personal bio until he dies. He tweets here.